by Emily Contois
Featuring the work of three influential food anthropologists, the fall 2012 BU Gastronomy lecture series concluded with a flourish on November 12 with “Around the Italian Table: A Roundtable Discussion of Contemporary Food Ethnography in Italy.”
United in their methodologies and Italian focus, each explores different aspects of Italian foodways. The work of Carole Counihan, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Millersville University and Visiting Professor of Gastronomy, spans more than thirty years. From studying the modernization of consumption in the late 1970s to analyzing the motivations and function of food activism in the twenty-first century, Counihan’s body of work demonstrates how a scholar’s study questions evolve over time. Valeria Siniscalchi, Associate Professor of Anthropology, EHESS, has studied food as a social connector and an economic object in Italy and France. Her recent work analyzes the Slow Food Movement, focusing on the economic and political dynamics of the organization’s leadership. Rachel Black, Assistant Professor of Gastronomy, has studied Porta Palazzo, the largest open-air market in Western Europe, as a field unto itself that prompts discussion of topics as far afield as immigration, culinary tourism, and urban renewal. She now focuses on the anthropology of wine, an understudied topic, exploring the construction of vino naturale and the economic contribution of wine cooperatives.
Taking questions from the audience, the speakers engaged in a lively discussion, beginning with the role of the anthropologist and the “schizophrenia of anthropology.” As they spend significant time in a culture not their own, anthropologists endeavor to see a culture with new eyes, but without ethnocentrism. In this process, there is a constant negotiation of the insider-outsider relationship. In the end, even for Siniscalchi, an Italian who studies Italians, the anthropologist is always an outsider.
The conversation later turned to the generational and gendered dimensions of Italian foodways, as even women who work outside of the home perform as much as 90 percent of domestic duties. Black shared that many Italian women in their twenties and thirties have never learned to cook, as their mothers have instead encouraged them to pursue professional careers outside of the home. Counihan and Siniscalchi discussed how youth are often drawn to the Slow Food Movement for political reasons, desiring to resist the hegemonic power of the agro-industrial food system. Older Slow Food members, however, are more highly motivated by the taste of good food that they recognize as Italian.
Italians often perceive good food as local food, grown in Italy, a perspective greatly impacted by globalization. Black discussed how market vendors post signs reading, nostrano, meaning “ours” and indicating a strong and intimate connection between food and place. Counihan posits that participating in a global economy has made Italians even more chauvinistic about local food. As new immigrants continue to enter Italy, however, tensions must be negotiated, determining the place of the “other” in Italian culture and foodways.
This dynamic roundtable event revealed that we in food studies are never studying only food. As Counihan stated, food is heavily inflected with emotions, customs, economics, politics, and power, which inevitably link up with other things in a culture. For food anthropologists, and food studies scholars more generally, food is our powerful lens of choice for viewing the greater world.
Emily is a current gastronomy student and graduate assistant. Check out her research in food studies, nutrition, and public health on her blog, emilycontois.com.